Lunch & Learn: The Technology of History with Carla Zimowsk

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The Technology Manager for the History Department at Princeton University, Carla Zimowsk has provided technical support for the department for 10 years. Not trained as a historian or a GIS expert, she draws upon graduate work in organizational communications and knowledge management. As a result, during the past decade, she has come to understand the needs of those she supports.

“The faculty all have stuff,” she began at the March 24 Lunch ‘n Learn seminar, “and it tells a story when pulled together.” In a trip to the Visualization Centre at the University of Birmingham several years ago, she suddenly realized the importance of visualizing data.

On her return, she began to assist a steadily growing number of history faculty who are also excited about the use of such tools. In a Lunch ‘n Learn presentation on March 5, 2008, Professor John Haldon discussed the Avkat Project, a study of small fortress town near Armenia between the 5^th and 11^th centuries. Avkat uses the technology to assemble images, tax records, and even to predict where to dig. The result is a multi-disciplinary approach to a complete material culture and landscape evolution sequence from the Neolithic period through the modern day. Haldon has been able to calculate population densities primary dietary requirements, and estimate land uses.

In another Lunch ‘n Learn presentation on March 26, 2008, Professor Emmanuel Kreike showed how he was able to place fly-over maps from the 1940s with present-day satellite imagery to draw conclusions about deforestation and settlement over time in Namibia. His GIS databases also contain modern features, from roads and fences through buildings and wells, tax records, photographs, and even interviews with local inhabitants.

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Modern Geographical Information Systems reveal relationships, patterns, and trends, not only about physical features, but economic and social phenomena. History Professor Rob Karl is using GIS to search for useful correlations in the international history of political violence. He has charted the distribution of major bandit groups and community action boards as well as changes in political affiliation in Columbia.

Professor Yair Mintzler is studying the defortification of German cities in the 18th and 19th centuries. Charting such events permits scholars to observe key trends. Mintzler plans another interesting use of information technology, the online replication of a German prison.

“What do historians do with computers other than use them as glorified typewriters?” This was the question that Zimowsk most often got from colleagues when she first started providing technical support in the history department in 1999. Ten years later, the question hasn’t changed much as some might now ask, “What do historians do with computers other than create PowerPoint shows for class?”

Both questions assume that historians only concern themselves with archival collection and recollection of dates, events, places, or people. By working with and observing these historians, she has learned that while they are interested in these individual facts, they are also interested in making connections and inferences from among them and in that, finding patterns, making comparisons, or trying to visualize and experience what cannot be seen, touched, or witnessed first-hand.

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Speaker Bio: Before working in the University’s History Department, Carla worked for the Art Museum for seven years, and before that Graduate Admissions. Carla has degrees from Blackburn College in Music and a Masters in Communication and Information from Rutgers.

A podcast and the presentation are available.

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